By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 5/20/2008 3:18:26 PM ET 2008-05-20T19:18:26

A bicycle trip through Europe? It’s a romantic vision, with days spent meandering through southern France, or moving across green fields from pub to pub in Ireland. There are plenty of options beyond these typical tour brochure staples, with a price tag that won’t leave you gasping for air.

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There are surprisingly extensive cycling greenways through Austria and the varied countries nearby — Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. Most of the cycling takes place off the main roads in this region and the price tag is often half what you would pay in Western Europe.

Forget visions of bleak industrial towns and Soviet-style apartment blocks though. These biking trips go through some of the most picturesque countryside in Europe, with castles on hills, cobblestone villages going through a restoration boom, vineyards, and lakes.

Two decades ago there were no biking trails or biking trips in this region. It was rare to even see a free world tourist in Hungary, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia. Then, as soon as communism fell, a few forward-looking people banded together and decided to do something with the blank slate in front of them.

It all started with the Czech Environmental Partnership, formed in 1991 to establish hiking and cycling greenways in the Moravia region. The effort eventually stretched to the rest of the country through the related Czech Greenways Travel Club, with alliances that linked the network up with that of Austria’s.

Later, the Amber Trail Greenways organization established routes in Poland and Slovakia. These groups and others have worked with local communities to establish and connect trails through rural areas, vineyards, and farms, and to enlist volunteers to maintain the trails and the signage.

Now this well-developed network of biking trails has routes good for a day or two weeks. You could start in Vienna and go all the way to Prague, Budapest, Bratislava, or even Krakow under your own leg power. There are plenty of short loops, however, with easy flat trails or more challenging workouts.

The short trips
The best options for just two or three days on a bike are around Lake Balaton in Hungary and in the Moravian wine region of the Czech Republic.

Lake Balton is Hungary’s main recreation area and one of the premier winemaking regions. The biking route around the lake is approximately 124 miles, though of course you can double back along the way and avoid doing the whole loop.

Several companies run organized cycling tours around Hungary, with prices running anywhere from $80 to $200 a day per person, double occupancy, depending on hotel options and meals. You can do it on your own for less by just renting gear from a local bike shop, especially if you only want to ride for a day or two and return to your hotel base.

In the Villany wine region to the south, which has a climate closest to the wine regions of France, start with an inquiry to the Villany-Siklos Wine Route Association. In both regions, it’s not unusual to find basic but nice hotels for under $50, breakfast and wine glasses included.

Biking in the Czech Republic is no secret to the thousands of Europeans that pour in each year. The mostly off-road routes throughout the country are well-marked and organized, plus reasonably priced hotels in every town display a “cyclists welcome” sign. This means they have been inspected and have facilities for secure bike storage and laundry.

In Moravia you can ride through vineyards and past grand castles built by the Lichtensteins. Nearly every town has wineries to visit for tastings and during harvest season in autumn the collections of wine cellars on the edge of towns are alive with harvest activities and festivals. You can set up a tour through the Czech Greenways Travel Clubor their sister organization in New York, Friends of Czech Greenways. This allows you to let someone else work out all the details and if something goes wrong you’ve got someone along who can make repairs.

They can also set up self-guided tours, or you can go direct and do it through Top Bicycle, a company that also has offices in neighboring countries. They will let you drop off the bike for no charge in Prague, Cesky Krumlov, or Brno in the Czech Republic, or across the borders in Vienna (Austria) and Bratislava (Slovakia).

Prices start at around $30 a day for a well-maintained hybrid bike with all necessary equipment. Tandem, kids’ bikes, and child pull-along trailers are available. Hotels start at around $30 and in some towns you couldn’t pay more than $75 if you wanted to. Lunch with a great Czech beer is often around $5 or $6.

Long trips
You can easily cycle for a week or more just in the Czech Republic, extending beyond Moravia to Cesky Krumlov or Prague. The really hard-core cyclists can head to Poland, where a 540-mile “Necklace of the North” trails runs through lake districts, natural parks, and small villages.

Many groups like to combine two or more counties in a trip of a week or more, with the Prague to Vienna (or vice-versa) route being very popular. Or, starting in Hungary, a nine-day route runs from Budapest through the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, with lots of steep terrain.

Another challenging route is the 10-day, 226-mile “Amber Trail” journey from Krakow to Budapest in Hungary. It retraces the ancient route used for transporting amber from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, including a cross over mountains that reach 3,600 feet.

For most organized tours, you can arrange them in the U.S. through a local tour operator. You may pay a bit more, but you have the convenience of having everything set up through one company that speaks your language well. For the Czech Republic, book through the Friends of Czech Greenways (linked above) or book tours there and elsewhere in the region through Bike Tours Direct.

Tim Leffel is author of the books "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" and "The World's Cheapest Destinations". He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

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